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Utility Regulators Refereeing Fierce Boxing Matches Over Rooftop Solar Energy

solar-retail-rooftop2When California’s utility regulators kept a plan in place to pay rooftop solar owners the retail rate for the electricity that they return to their providers, those refs may have triggered a national trend. Is it the right decision?

In Late January, the California Public Utilities Commission voted 3-2 to allow solar customers to continue to get paid retail rates — power that is now sold back to the utilities over their own wires. The question is whether those solar customers should get paid the same as what utilities are charging for it or whether they should get paid the wholesale rate, which is notably less.

The difference between the two will determine just how fast a payback on expensive rooftop solar will occur and whether the trend toward more solar rooftop installations will continue. Utilities want to pay the wholesale rate, saying that it cost a lot of money to keep the grid up-to-speed and that if customers peel off, then it leaves fewer-and-fewer homeowners and businesses left to pay those expenses. It’s a divisive issue now taking place in at least 20 states across the country.

“Utilities, spurred on by their trade association the Edison Electric Institute, have been waging a battle against distributed solar for two years,” says Sean Gallagher, vice president of state affairs for the Solar Energy Industry Association. “Utilities want to slow down rooftop solar while they try to figure out what their futures will look like.”

The Edison Electric Institute responds by saying that its members spend $25 billion a year on upkeep — and that its utilities are also participating in these markets, to vary degrees and at various points in the process.

California, though, has given the rooftop solar industry a shot of energy. The vote, which can be revisited, will mean that the payback for rooftop solar panels is about 6 years, compared to 12 years under the utilities’ proposal.

While the commissioners elected to enact a one-time interconnection fee of between $75 and $150 for new solar customers — money to be used to help low-income households pay their utility bills — the regulators also voted to pay all such customers the retail rate for the electricity that they resell under the so-called net-metering rules. That amount, though, will vary depending on what time of the day the electricity is delivered to utilities.

The net metering rules in California were set a dozen years ago, with the intent that they would expire when solar penetration reached 5 percent at any of three investor-owned utilities: Edison International’s SoCalEd, PG&E Corp. and Sempra Energy, which is nearing the threshold.

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